My feminist fantasy book club has been in full swing, and we deviated a little for our most recent book and tried a Hugo-award winning science fiction novella instead.
“Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor is an eponymous science fiction novella about a young Himba woman who defies her close-knit family’s wishes and runs away to accept an offer as the first Himba person to study at an intergalactic university. Although far from her family, Binti’s proudly displays her distinct culture with her very visible otjize. However, when the ship is boarded by a hostile alien race, it is Binti’s unique culture that may be salvation.
This is a quick, intense novel that throws you headlong into Binti’s world. Okorafor pulls together all the classic elements of science fiction with space travel, aliens with tentacles, futurism and social commentary. Okorafor is a spirited writer, and this is an incredibly quick read. There are lots of pockets of technological ingenuity scattered throughout the book, and I love Okorafor’s approach to Afrofuturism and how it pays homage to traditional culture while weaving it seamlessly with science and space travel.
I think the only difficulty, which is one I have experienced with novellas before, is that because the story is so quick, it’s a little bit hard to get attached to the characters. There is an incident that happens about halfway through the book, and Binti refers to the impact of it several times afterwards, but the affected characters were introduced so briefly it is a little hard to empathise.
Nevertheless, this is a creative, enjoyable story that you will whip through in no time.
Non-fiction book about black women in fantasy
Content warning: racism
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“The Dark Fantastic” by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is a non-fiction book about the representation of black women in fantasy. Thomas focuses on four examples of popular fantasy books and television series that feature a black female character. Thomas presents her theory of the Dark Other as a lens through which to understand how black women are marginalised, even in magical worlds. Exploring the themes of spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting and emancipation, Thomas analyses “The Hunger Games”, “The Vampire Diaries”, “Merlin” and “Harry Potter” in depth while making mention of many other examples of afrofuturism and black fantastic stories.
This is a meticulous and thoughtful book that gives characters like Rue, Bonnie Bennett, Gwen and Angelina Johnson the attention and analysis that they often did not receive in their own stories. There were some very compelling arguments in this book, particularly Thomas’ discussion of hesitation and the rationale behind why readers, writers and publishers find black characters so disconcerting – even in fantasy worlds. I thought that the idea of waking dreams and the hypocrisy of how the idea of magic doesn’t break the illusion but an empowered black woman does was particularly piercing. Thomas is very frank about her experiences in fantasy fandom, and this first-hand knowledge and response enriches this structured and well-researched book.
I think the main question I have after reading this is who is the intended audience? Although softened y the autoethnography parts of the book, as well as the appealing subject matter, Thomas nevertheless has a very scholarly writing style that indicates her significant academic experience and qualifications. While I highly doubt anyone could fault her theories, research or conclusions, part of the advantage of writing non-fiction books is to bring complex yet important concepts to a broad audience and I think that some parts of Thomas’ book could be a little too intellectual for the average reader.
A fascinating and academic work about a phenomenon that any pop culture consumer has been exposed to but most probably haven’t even noticed.
Legal drama about a life and death decision
I’ve only ever read one book by this author before, but he recently came across my radar after a minor controversy where he appeared to suggest that his new novel was unlike conventional science fiction and examined ethical dilemmas instead of focusing on “anti-gravity boots“. Anyway, I’d bought this book for my friend a long time ago because I thought it’d be relevant to her interests, so I asked her if I could borrow it back to read.
“The Children Act” by Ian McEwan is a legal drama about Fiona, an English High Court judge, who specialises in family law. Although extremely successful in her work, congratulated by her peers for her well-written judgments about impossible ethical questions, Fiona’s personal life begins to fall apart when her husband announces his intention to have an affair. Unable to deal with this, Fiona throws herself headlong into a new case about a Jehovah’s Witness boy is refusing treatment for his leukemia. When the hospital makes an urgent application, Fiona decides to visit the boy in hospital to determine whether he is competent to make his own decision. However, as the judge, it is Fiona’s decision that matters the most and the way she makes it will change his life forever.
McEwan is compelling writer with a keen eye for human interest topics. This is a well-researched book and McEwan combines interesting case law with the realities of living a very privileged, but in some ways very lonely life. I thought the stand-out of this book was the character of Adam, a 17-year-old boy on the cusp of adulthood who is both dazzling in his potential and very, very young. McEwan captures his beauty and his folly extremely well.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it was I didn’t like about this book. I’ve looked at it from a few different angles, and ultimately I’ve had to conclude that it was Fiona’s characterisation. McEwan takes the stereotype of the working woman to its extreme with Fiona who had no children, has no time for her roving husband and whose only foray into any kind of wild abandon was a couple of trips to Newcastle with some cousins who are never named. Even though she is the main character, there’s an element of humanity, of realness missing from Fiona. I accept that McEwan is trying to shine a light on how cool legalistic arguments are not always suited to hot moral issues, but I refuse to accept that real people exist who are as banal as Fiona.
A well-written book but a shadow compared to my favourite fictional magistrate, Laura Gibson, who I cannot wait to see return to screen.
New York flapper suffragette murder mystery
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.
“Relative Fortunes” by Marlowe Benn is a murder mystery novel set in 1920s New York. The book follows Julia Kidd, a young woman in her mid-20s who has arrived in the city to sort out her father’s will and pursue her dreams of being a boutique publisher. In between dealing with her maddening half-brother, she spends her time socialising with her friend Glennis. However, when Glennis’ suffragette sister is found dead, Julia finds herself in the middle of a life-changing wager: prove Naomi’s death was a murder, or forfeit her inheritance.
There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book. I really liked Benn’s research into some of the things an unmarried woman in her mid-20s would get up to in the Roaring Twenties and some of the barriers she would encounter. I felt that the tension between Julia and her brother Philip was very well done, and the repartee between them was particularly scintillating. I also liked how Julia’s own attitude to the suffragette movement changed throughout the course of the book as she found that her own independence was not something that could be taken for granted.
I think that probably the part about this book I enjoyed the least was the murder mystery. No spoilers of course, but I felt like some of the twists in the story, while exploring some real life issues, felt a little melodramatic. I wasn’t quite sure that the motive fitted the act.
Nevertheless, I understand that this is to be the first of a series, and I would be interested in reading another Julia Kidd novel – if only to find out what happens next.
French crime thriller about three linked people
Content warning: child abuse, trafficking
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Broken Humanity” by Karine Vivier and translated by Kirsty Olivant is a crime thriller about three people who are linked by the disappearance of a little girl. Alice is a young girl whose life changed forever when her mother brought home a new partner. Now, instead of going to school, she must help her stepdad by befriending children and bringing them to his van, or else languish in a locked cellar. Judith had just planned on leaving her daughter in the car for five minutes while she went into the shop, and when she comes out after getting stuck at the checkout to find her daughter gone, she can’t stop blaming herself. Denis Papin has been released from prison and is trying to start a new, understated life despite being convicted of a terrible crime. However, when a little girl goes missing, he is suddenly a prime suspect.
This is a well-written, well-translated book that speeds along at a cracking pace. I often get asked to review crime thrillers and I blanch when they are 400 or 500 pages long because I know they are not going to be a quick read. This is a very quick read, and I am so, so appreciative of that. Even though it is a short, snappy book, Vivier covers a lot of different themes. I think that the most interesting of these is the theme of blame, and how we blame ourselves as well as others. Blame is something that permeates the stories of each of the main characters.
The critical thing for a good thriller is making sure that plot is watertight. I think that Vivier has all the elements there, and the story starts off strong, but I think that some of the later chapters lose the threads a little and miss some opportunities for that incredible dramatic thriller ending that readers hang out for.
A very easy read that touches on some difficult and interesting themes.
Retelling of Norwegian fairy tale
Our feminist fantasy book club rolled around again, and this time we were tackling a reinterpretation of a Norwegian fairy tale. I hadn’t heard of this one before, but given how cold it is in Canberra right now, it seemed a very appropriate winter choice. Our host put together a wonderful Winter Solstice feast on the night and we discussed the book in earnest.
“Echo North” by Joanna Ruth Meyer is a fantasy novel that reimagines the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon“. The story follows Echo Alkaev, a young woman with a facial difference who lives with her father, a bookseller, and her brother. When her father remarries, and then disappears, Echo is heartbroken. However, when she finds him near death in the forest months later, Echo is given a choice by a talking wolf: live with him for a year in exchange for her father’s safety. Echo agrees, and soon finds herself in a strange and shifting underground castle that requires magical care. She eventually discovers the library, an enchanted room that allows her to enter books through mirrors. There, she meets new friends and begins to unravel the secrets of the castle and the wolf.
This is a creative story that borrows elements from the original fairy tale but combines them with enough new ideas to really make it a unique tale. Everyone in the book club agreed that the magical library with mirrors that allowed you to step into books was a stroke of genius and we all really, really wanted one. Meyer explored some interesting themes including the way people treat Echo because of the way she looks, friendship, honesty and perseverance. There were also some interesting twists in this story that kept it engaging.
Winter solstice feast
Where this story falls down a little is the plot. Although Meyer has lots of interesting ideas when it comes to magic and place, I felt that a lot of the narrative choices didn’t quite hit the mark. There were a lot of loose threads that I felt could have been tied together a little more neatly, like the stepmother, the witch, the north wind and Hal. I also wasn’t super happy with Echo as a character. I appreciate this is a fairy tale, but the idea that if you love someone ardently enough everything will work out really needs to be thrown into the bin. Fate hangs on whether Echo can prove her love enough, but I think that it was Echo who needed her community, her father and later her lover to prove to her that they could love her enough. I also felt that Echo was woefully unprepared for her trip north, and there was a scene where she sells her winter coat and then continues on through the snow. I didn’t believe that she would survive for a second.
An inventive story that, while enjoyable enough to read, probably needed a little reworking to tighten the plot and give poor Echo the love and survival skills she deserved to have a true adventure.
Queer military fiction set during World War II
Content warning: war
I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, but I would have bought a copy anyway because I know the author through his work with the ACT Writers’ Centre. Although not ordinarily a genre I would choose, I was willing to put my own feelings about war aside to give this book a chance.
“Bodies of Men” by Nigel Featherstone is a war novel set in Egypt about two Australian men. William is a young corporal who, almost immediately after arriving in Alexandria, is caught in a skirmish with some Italian soldiers and is saved by another young man called James. Recognising him as his long lost childhood friend, the opportunity to reunite properly is lost when James is suddenly absent without leave and William is unceremoniously sent out into the desert to supervise training at an army depot. When William does find James recovering from injuries in a mysterious family’s house, the connection is undeniable. However, with constant patrols through Alexandria, rumours flying about what happened to the Italians taken prisoner, differences in class and the Hillens keeping their own secrets, William and James will have to decide how much they are willing to risk for a forbidden love.
I accidentally visited the Australian War Memorial during the Last Post ceremony
As I intimated earlier, I don’t generally like war novels but I really liked this one. Featherstone has seamlessly blended in-depth research and knowledge with a thorough understanding of human connection and chemistry. One of the things that my friend and I keep records of every year on our book list is how many books we read include queer content. However, while I make an effort to read books by LGBTIQA+ authors and including queer content, it is rare that I find a book that depicts intimacy like this. Featherstone has a knack for finding the beauty in something that is rarely conceived of as beautiful or valuable outside its usefulness: the male body.
I think that the only part of this book that I had difficulty with was the role of the Hillen family. On one hand, the secretive European family brought an extra dimension to the war and the context in which William and James were fighting. Their house was like an oasis in the heat. On the other hand, the refuge they provided to William and James did at times feel a bit like a deus ex machina and did not always seem, from an outsider’s perspective, like a fair exchange.
Nevertheless, this is a fresh and poignant story that builds on the tradition of military fiction and reinterprets it with a historical perspective that certainly existed but has rarely been told.